How to be invisible, p.1
To all the invisible people
It was the 13th of September, 13 days after my 13th birthday, when I first learned how to be invisible.
I have never been superstitious. I’ve been told that the number 13 is unlucky, but to me the date was nothing more than a meaningless coincidence. My father, Melchior Nyman, taught me that people cannot resist reading meanings into coincidences. Melchior is a scientist. His mind is very logical.
According to Melchior, the significance of patterns like 13, 13, 13 is an invention of the human mind. There are no signs and there are no portents. There are no omens, good or bad.
However, my father would also insist that it was impossible for his son – or anyone else – to become invisible. So he may be wrong about coincidences as well.
Peaches, my mother, sees things differently from Melchior. She is superstitious – although she would use the word “intuitive”. She would be in no doubt that my learning how to be invisible would have unpleasant consequences.
Peaches was convinced that the town we lived in, Hedgecombe-upon-Dray, had Mystical Significance even before we moved there from London. She claimed that it was sited on ancient ley lines.
I asked her what ley lines were.
She said, “There’s no point in telling you because you wouldn’t believe it anyway.”
If she had been anyone else, I would probably have left it at that. At the time, I was rather shy – almost pathologically unassertive at times. But with my parents I was different. I felt confident with them, so I didn’t mind picking arguments. In fact, I rather enjoyed it. Inside my head I was not shy at all – I was full to bursting with opinions and feelings and thoughts. But new people made me anxious. They made me clam up and stutter and stoop. I didn’t know why or what to do about it.
I nagged Peaches to tell me about ley lines, and eventually she sighed and, without looking up at me, said, “They’re very ancient currents of invisible energy. Old places like monuments and megaliths and temples are all connected together by them. They are present in the earth, and in the stones and the fields. If you live on a ley line, you are very lucky, because you are surrounded by special energy. So there you are. That’s what a ley line is. Is my examination over? Can I go now?”
Peaches never hid the fact that she sometimes found me irritating. That was because – with her and Melchior at least – I was always very determined to follow an argument through to its logical conclusion, which tended to lay bare the flaws in their reasoning.
“So they’re there, but you can’t see or detect them?” I said.
“Yes,” said Peaches, in a slightly weary voice.
“So how do you know they’re there at all?”
“Because you can feel them. The energy isn’t the same in Hedgecombe as it is in London. It’s clearer. Wilder. Purer.”
“I don’t get it. You can’t measure ley lines, you can’t detect them and you can’t examine them. There’s no evidence.”
The only time Peaches ever reverts to speaking in her old voice from the American South where she was born is when she gets stressed or exasperated.
“Listen, dahlin’, you don’t have any evidence for love, do you? Show me a chunk of love on a laboratory slide. There are lots of things you can’t see that are real. Put a human tear under the microscope. All you’ll see is water and salt.”
“There would also be a number of trace elements,” I said.
“You’re missing the point,” she said. “A tear isn’t just water and salt and trace elements. It means something that you can’t find with experiments and science.”
“It’s not the same.”
“Blah de blah blah. As ever, it’s been deeply stimulating exchanging ideas with you. But I have to go. Things to do, people to see, windows to stare out of.”
“But what about the evidence?” I asked.
“Evidence isn’t everything. I have to get back to work. I have a book to write. My public won’t wait. See ya later, genius.”
With that she marched off to her study and her precious book. It was the first one she had ever written and she thought it was the most important thing in the world.
I disagreed with her about ley lines. I thought evidence was everything – I take after Melchior rather than Peaches, and my mindset is fundamentally scientific.
Which is why discovering how to become invisible flipped my world upside down.
This is how it began. School had finished for the day, and I had nothing in particular to do. I had been living in Hedgecombe for nearly a month, and Christmas was still a way off. I was looking forward to it, but it was about all that I was looking forward to.
Up until then I had spent my life in South London, where I had attended a school for gifted and talented children. The special school was necessary because my IQ was 156, which put me in a minority of 1.2 per cent of all children. I had been quite happy there. I’d had good friends in London, and that had helped me come out of my shell a little bit.
When we moved to Hedgecombe, I had to go to a normal school. I’d felt a change come over me when I walked into that school. My shoulders hunched a bit, so I felt smaller. I had a half smile on my face a lot of the time, even though nothing was funny. I found it hard to make eye contact with the other children, and I started chewing things – my nails, pencils, the corners of notebooks. I spoke too quietly, and I mumbled half the time as if I had a speech impediment, which I didn’t.
It wasn’t a bad school, but I knew it would take me a while to fit in. I felt hopeful that sooner or later I would get used to it – or that it would get used to me. It wasn’t really challenging me intellectually, but I didn’t mind too much. I made up for the unused slack in my brain by frequenting the local bookshops. There were an awful lot of them in Hedgecombe. The place was positively world famous for it.
It was hard to understand how all those bookshops managed to turn a profit. Only a few thousand people actually lived in Hedgecombe, and they couldn’t buy enough books to keep all the shops in business. There were thirty bookshops in the town and the owners didn’t really mind if you spent hours in there not buying anything.
I would just wander into a shop, find a book that I liked and then settle down on the floor, or a chair if there was one, to read it. No one ever bothered me. Most of the staff were just glad to have a customer, even if that customer never actually spent any money.
This particular late-autumn Tuesday was misty. The light was fading fast. Whether or not Hedgecombe is actually situated on ley lines it does have a great deal of “atmosphere”. This has to do with it being situated deep in a river valley at the foot of a range of mountains. As a result, dense fogs and mists often roll in from the peaks and the river, cloaking the town in vaporous swirls. They are so thick sometimes that they seem to muffle sound and render the place silent, as if it’s been cut off from the rest of the world.
Sometimes it’s hard to see your hand in front of your face out of doors early in the morning. Rather like a fall of snow, the fog transforms the landscape and makes everything seem strange and out o
The town is full of winding narrow cobbled streets and alleyways. It’s all higgledy-piggledy and it feels as if it’s bursting with secrets, especially when the town is filled with vapour and the streets are like shadows. Many of the roads are too narrow for cars to get down, so it’s also quiet and mysterious.
I was wandering alone on this particular day, with no special purpose, when I noticed a little cul-de-sac, just off a paved section that ran between two small roads in the centre of the town. I’d walked along the paved section before, and even looked in one of the bookshops – quite a boring one, specializing in nautical and military matters – but for some reason I’d never noticed the tiny passageway that stretched off past the side of the cafe there.
It really was very narrow – not much wider than a couple of wheelbarrows placed side by side – and I was surprised, when I looked down it, to see in the murky distance an old flaking sign hanging over a dusty shop front. As I got closer, I could see it was another bookshop. I couldn’t imagine that anyone would be able to find this shop, and with twenty-nine other bookshops in the town, the competition alone would have made it hard to survive. A single yellow street light glowed in front of the shop, turning the mist a mustard colour.
I squeezed down the passage. (I didn’t literally squeeze, but it felt that way.) I thought I would find a row of shops, but it turned out that there was only one – the bookshop under the glowing light.
It didn’t seem to have a name. The board above the shop front was blank. There was just the sign which swung in the wind and simply said “Books”. Only the paint on the “k” and the “s” had faded, so what it actually said was “Boo”.
I noticed a bird sitting on the sign. A big black one, with a white mark roughly the shape of a figure eight on its wing. I could have sworn it was staring at me. It gave me the creeps. I picked up some pebbles and threw them at the thing. It didn’t move a feather. It just kept on watching me.
There didn’t appear to be any lights on in the shop so I wondered if it was closed, but when I pushed on the door, it opened easily and quietly. The big black bird was still perched on the sign, like a sentinel.
There was no one in there. All there were – obviously – were books. Books on the floor, books stacked up to the ceiling, books on shelves, books on the windowsills and blocking the windows themselves. There were so many of them that hardly any light could get into the shop at all.
There were a ridiculous number of tomes stuffed into a very cramped space – the shop floor was not much bigger than a large front room. The volumes didn’t seem to be arranged in any kind of order. Most bookshops, even chaotic ones, have sections for fiction and non-fiction, and sections within those sections – crime, autobiography or whatever else there might be. Here there were just books. They were piled up, layer after layer, all of them old, most of them looking rather shabby and dusty.
It was fairly obvious why there were no customers. The place was a complete shambles. The windows were dirty and the lights did not work. It also felt very cold – colder even than outside.
I picked up some boring-looking books. A cloud of dust flew into the air, making me sneeze. The sound echoed in the silence. Still, no one emerged from the gloom to attend to me.
I was just about to walk out of the shop again when I noticed that there was a doorway to the right of the serving counter. It said “Come Downstairs – Half Price on Science Fiction and Fantasy”. I was a big enthusiast of both. I was reading the first volume of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books, A Game of Thrones, and I was loving it. I wanted to get a copy of the second volume in the series, A Clash of Kings. On impulse I decided to take up the invitation.
The stairs leading down were creaky and narrow and there was barely space to get my shoulders around the corner, but, when I finally made it through, the room was exactly like the one upstairs, only even more jumbled and cluttered. The single light bulb was very dim so the room was mostly in gloom and shadow.
It had a strange smell – like old, wet leaves. I picked up a book at random – it was some kind of junky romance called A Kiss for the Wicked. The cover featured a very appealing trashy blonde woman in a red bikini pointing a gun at a man in a double-breasted suit. If there were sci-fi and fantasy books, it wasn’t going to be easy finding them.
I noticed yet another staircase, leading further down into the bowels of the building. This time, there was a sign saying “Sci-fi and Fantasy – 75 Per Cent Off”. Apparently the price dropped the deeper you went. I picked my way to the staircase, through the books strewn all over the floor, and then made my way gingerly downstairs.
This time it was almost dark. I was certainly aware that there was a lot of clutter in there, but it wasn’t even worth looking at the titles – I wouldn’t have been able to see anything.
Then I nearly jumped out of my bloody socks, figuratively speaking, because a loud voice suddenly spoke from an unseen corner of the room.
“Looking for anything in particular?”
The voice was odd – rough and coarse and what Peaches would have called “common”, and yet with a sort of educated lilt. It was very definitely London-sounding. It wasn’t the sort of voice you usually heard in bookshops – bookshop voices were usually well-spoken and polite and rather hushed. This sounded more like the man who used to sell knives from a stall at the end of a street market we used to go to in South London. His voice was sharper than the knives he sold. It cut right through you.
I stammered a bit because the place was somewhat creepy and the man, who I still could not see properly through the gloom, made me nervous. What came out of my mouth was a sort of disjointed gobbledegook.
“No. I’m … I’m … the sign said … hello? No. Science fiction. And—”
“Fantasy,” said the rough voice, cutting through my burbling. A bizarre figure strode out of the shadows.
He was a very peculiar-looking man. For a start, he was abnormally tall, about two metres I would guess – a giant. The ceiling of the room was very low – I could probably have touched it myself if I had stretched my arm up and taken a really good jump, but he was actually bent over at quite an acute angle trying to fit under it.
He also had a ginger moustache. Really ginger – quite vividly red. And it was massive – so big that it covered half his face, which was thin, greyish and wrinkled.
He noticed I was looking at it.
“Like the ’tache?” he said, grinning broadly, which seemed to extend the huge growth on his lip even more, till it almost reached his ears.
I didn’t respond.
“Style they call ‘the Imperial’. Gone out of fashion. Not many true devotees nowadays. Of the ’tache, I mean. Shame.”
I didn’t respond again. I just stared at him. I sensed myself smiling. I do this when I am particularly nervous.
“No. I’m just … no.”
I dried up and tried to wipe the grin off my face. Without making eye contact, I stole another look at him. I guessed he was about sixty years old. He was wearing a loud browny-orange-check three-piece suit with the two middle buttons of the waistcoat missing. He had a chewed pencil behind his ear and a pair of spectacles with slightly tinted lenses. I couldn’t imagine why he would be wearing tinted glasses when it was so dark in the shop. They were the shape of half moons.
Suddenly a fluorescent light flicked on. It was brilliantly bright and it felt like being slapped in the face. I blinked and stumbled, knocking down an enormous pile of books. I put my hand out and caught one of them, but the rest went crashing onto the floor.
“Whoopsy,” said the man.
Again, I said nothing.
“What is it?” he said, nodding towards the book in my hand.
I looked at the book I had caught. It had no words on the front and no words on the spine. On the front
“I don’t know,” I said. “I just … caught it.”
“Caught it?” he said. “By accident?”
We both stood there in silence.
“Why don’t you open it?” he said, after what seemed like several minutes had passed. He said it in the sort of voice that isn’t easy to say no to, or ignore. His head was still cricked against the ceiling. He must have been very uncomfortable indeed, but he was smiling as if he was perfectly happy.
I opened it. I looked at the title page. There was no author or publisher or anything else. Just four words.
“‘How To Be Invisible’,” I read, in a very quiet voice.
“Can’t hear you,” he said.
I coughed and tried again.
“‘How To Be Invisible’,” I said, this time raising my voice a couple of decibels.
“That one,” he said, gazing at it, and then me, intently. He spoke gravely now, as if he was addressing a very important meeting.
I did not know what to say.
“A proper dyed-in-the-wool bona fide classic,” he said, nodding meditatively.
“Have you read it?” I blurted. That was my attempt to make small talk.
“Read every book in this shop,” he replied, his voice brightening. “Some of them twice. It’s like my personal collection. Tell you the truth, I don’t much like selling them. Not that that’s too much of a problem. Not many customers, see. Lots of competition here. Place is a bit hidden away.”
“Yes,” I said. “I can see that.”
We fell into silence again. I wanted to get out of there, but didn’t want to be rude. Despite the roughness of his voice, he appeared pleased to see me. There was a weird crooked smile on his face. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it did make him look a bit odd, that combined with the fact that he was crouched down all the time.
“You can have that,” he said.
I looked down at the book.
“Really?” I said.
“No charge,” he added.
To be honest, I didn’t really want the book. It was so dusty and old, it was almost certainly boring.